What’s the difference between Emily and her sisters? What makes her better than every other female writer at the time?
This novel felt to me like the first modern romance. I’m not usually a fan of romance writing. In fact, I’m sure this was the first romance I’ve ever read. But something about Emily Brontë makes her stand out. She seems totally exclusive from the other writers of the time. I never like to read a classic as important as Wuthering Heights without learning a bit about the author – so I did just that. We’ll leave the poetry for now and focus on Wuthering Heights. Here are my findings:
There are several reasons for Emily’s outlandish writing style and philosophies. Firstly, Emily, like the characters in Wuthering Heights, lived a remote and secluded life out in the countryside. She was never exposed to the bustling proletarian life of Victorian England and lived comfortably and with great wealth in the countryside. This was important for her unique train of thought, as it led her away from the very typical ‘social revolutionary’ style of just about every other female writer in England, who was jostling for a place in the movement which would one day lead to women’s enfranchisement. As good as it was for women, it unfortunately obligated every writer to somehow entangle this movement in her writing, which made much of their literature very similar in thought.
The second important fact of Emily’s life was that her father was incredibly progressive. He insisted that his daughters be educated and that they persist through life with a thirst for knowledge – which they indeed carried through, playing vocabulary games as girls growing up, while urban Victorian women might have begun searching for a husband to settle down at the same age.
Finally, and most importantly, the last factor which led to Emily’s greatest work was the fact that she frequently observed and experienced early death. All around her, in almost constant succession, her family members died of illness. She herself passed away at a very young age and her book was not acknowledged as a classic until many decades after her death. In fact, her older sister Charlotte experienced greater literary success during their lifetimes.
Now, onto the novel itself. Despite the ‘romance’ genre it is assigned, it’s not very romantic. In fact, this is an apt summary of the plot: Heathcliff kills everyone, be it by regular beatings or by slow, emotional erosion, including Catherine (the love of his life), until he eventually does the same thing to himself.
While it’s quite normal for readers to hate him, he is the reason for the novel’s success. In Charlotte’s (Emily’s sister) opinion, the reader is constantly waiting for Heathcliff to forget his hateful vendetta and simply resign to the fact that his love, Catherine, is dead. The reader expects him to turn around at every moment and try to redeem the damage he has already done, to feign some sort of righteousness in the name of love and shout out to the ghost of Catherine that he is sorry.
It never happens. He remains the devil incarnate, rampaging, shouldering, extorting, blackmailing and coercing his way into the lives of everyone at The Grange and at Wuthering Heights, until there is scarcely anything left. After decades of tormenting everyone, he drives himself mad and dies of (starvation, cold and illness, love sickness) one of those. I’m not really sure. Perhaps all of them.
Upon his death, everyone in the area literally breathes a sigh of relief. Finally we reach the somewhat happy ending, which is romantic in a way, but far from idealised. His deceased love, Catherine, had a child with her husband, Linton, who you can imagine was never liked by Heathcliff. Their child’s name is also Catherine. Heathcliff experiences a great deal of confusion around her. She has a strong resemblance of her mother, but is the child of another man and represents Heathcliff’s failure to live a long, happy life with Catherine. Indeed, he is both filled with old emotions when he sees her face and hates her at the same time. He attempts over many years to destroy her lineage by getting her interested in his own son and thus have his own lineage take over Catherine’s husband’s.
However, Heathcliff’s son is frail and ill, a metaphor for the twisted circumstances in which he was conceived, and for the fact that he only exists to serve a greater purpose of destruction for Heathcliff. When the young boy dies, Catherine takes a liking to Hareton, who she teaches to read. Once Heathcliff dies soon after, nothing stops them from having a happy life together. For the first time in the novel, the reader feels something other than ‘What is that crazy bastard Heathcliff going to do now?’
I’m supposing the moral story here is that Heathcliff’s corruptive and sinister power is eventually trumped by Catherine’s will to live and spread joy. In the time leading to her death, she claims that Heathcliff killed her on an emotional level, her daughter continues her lineage and ultimately outlives Heathcliff. This is NOT, I believe, a ‘love overcomes all’ novel. In fact, I believe it has little to do with love itself. It’s more like a power play. That’s fine. That’s what I like about it. It really takes a different swing to the same issue, and that’s why Emily’s novel is a classic and other romance novels aren’t. And it only took society about a century to figure that out!
What do I really like about this novel? It’s not the fact that it’s unique, or the fact that it’s well-written. Hell, I don’t like to read any novels from that era unless I have to! What I really liked about this book was its perception of love. I believe we are fed too much Hollywood falsehood with regards to love, and my generation ,and indeed the generation before mine, has grown up thinking that love is infallible, perfect, ideal, an end rather than a symptom of something else entirely. I don’t like that at all, because when we are faced with the real ‘true love’, especially in high-grade literature, I find all the soft-hearted ladies in my class yelling at the top of the voices that this isn’t love.
‘Heathcliff cannot love! He’s evil!’
‘They cannot love, it’s such a terrible situation, where would one find love?’
I saw the same thing happen in T. Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Stella loves her rather brutal husband, Stanley. We know this. Yet he beats her occasionally and dominates her emotionally and physically. She puts up with it and loves him unconditionally. This seems counter-intuitive to what we are used to, and that fact in itself is a failure on our part. When looking at literature, one cannot wait for the perfect love to arise. Then you have even more socially incorrect instances of love like V. Nabokov’s Lolita. Doesn’t get weirder than that, yet it is love without a doubt.
So here’s the greatest symbolism I extracted for myself from Wuthering Heights and from many other stories: True love is not ideal, or perfect. It is twisted. It is strained. True love can exist in an environment that is not conducive to love. Not only can it exist, but it grows stronger and the bonds are tighter than they ever could be in a happy suburban home. Tell me your thoughts in the comments if you wish.
I’ve included some other blog post relating to Wuthering Heights and the issues surrounding it:
Please like my literature posts if (and only if) you want to see more literature, and longer posts with deeper analysis. I feel like this length may not be well suited to blogging.